‘An Addiction I Could Never Shake’: Street Art Pioneer Risk on How He Brought Graffiti From the Street to the Gallery

The artist will receive a Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award at Art Wynwood.

Kelly "Risk" Graval. Photo courtesy of the artist.

To write his first bit of graffiti, a young Kelly Graval didn’t travel very far. He staked out his high school until it was dark, before jumping the fence with four cans of red and white spray paint. On a wall, he painted “a big piece” that simply read “SURF,” a nod to his hobby.

“It was terrible,” he said of his debut as a graffitist—though by the next day, the work managed to draw the attention and admiration of his classmates, most of whom, back in the early ‘80s in Los Angeles, had yet to encounter any form of graffiti.

From there, Graval’s canvases would only grow larger and farther as his adventures in graffiti took him to train yards and freeways across L.A. His legend would develop alongside his tag, Risk, an apt moniker that captured the rebellion and peril inherent in graffiti writing, and that, yes, he borrowed from the board game. 

 

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For Risk, it made sense that he should persist in writing and tagging the city. “You have the art form and you have the strategic form,” he told Artnet News of graffiti. “It’s just an addiction that I could never shake.”

Decades on, his endurance is paying off. Recognized as a pioneer in the West Coast graffiti scene, Risk has seen his work included in exhibitions from “Art in the Streets” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles to “Beyond the Streets” in Los Angeles and New York. His recent forays into fine art and sculpture, too, have fetched prices upwards of $200,000.

Risk, Sign of the Times (2022). Photo courtesy of Chase Contemporary.

Over Art Wynwood weekend from February 16 through 19, Risk will be collecting the fair’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award for continuing to “innovate and shape contemporary art through his work.” His sculptures will feature within the fair, which is presented by Art Miami, and his graffiti art will take up an entire mural that flanks the entrance.

Certainly, the honor is “mind-blowing,” he said, but it’s also been gratifying to watch what once was deemed vandalism enter the art conversation.

“My whole life I wanted graffiti art to be a mainstream art form—to just be considered a genre of art. I wanted to see this art form be in galleries and museums, and celebrated around the world,” he said. “And now it is.”

Kelly “Risk” Graval. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Born in 1967 in New Orleans, Graval grew up in Los Angeles an avid surfer and doodler—until a classmate presented him images of New York City’s subway cars drenched in vibrant and dynamic writing. “I was blown away,” he remembered. “I thought it was great that they had these metal canvases cruising the city with these big social commentaries, and I was like, ‘I wish we could do that here.’”

The walls of University High School swiftly became covered in Risk’s tags and letters, before he graduated to attend the USC School of Fine Arts on a full scholarship. As an artist, he also graduated to tagging Los Angeles’s freeways and freight trains, becoming the earliest graffitist on the West Coast to do so. 

While their East Coast counterparts incorporated elements of the early hip hop movement in their calligraphic writing, graffiti artists in Los Angeles such as Chance and Rival more often reached for punk and Chicano references. Risk’s own throw-ups and compositions were similarly rendered abstract and strikingly psychedelic—“jagged,” in his description.

As a teenager living on his own, he also sought commercial work in Hollywood, lending his skills to corporate clients from Budweiser to MTV to Playboy, and creating graffiti-ed backdrops for various movies and print ads.

Risk’s graffiti on the set of Michael Jackson’s video for “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Photo courtesy of the artist.

His biggest coup arrived when he landed a gig writing all the graffiti on the street set of Michael Jackson’s video for “The Way You Make Me Feel” in 1987. Witnessing Jackson choreograph the film on the spot was akin to “watching a genius at work,” said Risk, though his lasting memory remains of the video’s director, Joe Pytka.

“There were cars on the set, and some were rented as props. I remember there was one particular car that [Jackson] wanted to jump and dance on, but he couldn’t because they didn’t own it,” he recalled. “Joe walked up to the car with a sledgehammer, beat it up, and said, ‘Now we own it.’ Nothing got in the way of his artistic vision.”

RISK, Face Your Fears (2018). Photo courtesy of Chase Contemporary.

This desire to “push boundaries”—or “that Joe Pytka thing,” according to Risk—is what drove his latter-day multimedia works. Beginning in the 2010s, he’s assembled found objects on which to paint or with which to sculpt, his work encompassing pop cultural icons spray painted onto car frames, license plate canvases framed by neon tubes, and, in a hat-tip to Damien Hirst, a massive sculpture of a shark crafted out of scrap metal.

Risk’s background as a graffitist lends energy to these pieces, but also, raw material. The Rust-Oleum spray paint can, for one, stars in a number of his canvases and sculptures, its brand name altered to read, of course, “Risk-Oleum.” 

And for his 2014 series, Metallic Tissue, Risk gathered the thousands of empty aerosol cans he’d used over the years in his illicit art, flattening them or riveting them together to form new canvases. On one, against a background of layered color and faded writing, is spray painted the words, “The American Dream.” 

Risk-Oleum large spray can. Photo courtesy of Chase Contemporary.

Digital mediums have also called: Risk has ventured into NFTs (a project currently on hold) and will debut virtual reality graffiti prints at Art Wynwood. “It’s something new I want to explore and try to work with, to learn and understand it,” he said, adding that graffiti, much like digital work today, faced an uphill climb in the art world.

That he continues to center graffiti, what he calls the “last hand-to-surface medium,” in his practice is as much fitting as it is an assertion of the art form’s legs and staying power, despite its ephemerality. This, too, as hip hop, of which graffiti forms a key element, enters its 50th year in 2023.

“I think the roots of anything are very important,” he said. “Anything you do, you have to know where it comes from before you know where you’re at.”


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